Was there a real King Arthur ?

“King” Arthur is a prominent and fascinating figure of literature and storytelling through the ages. Secondary to that he has an additional fascination as one of those figures who lie on the borders of historical fact and storytelling fiction: no substantial consensus has been reached as to which category he ultimately belongs. Was he a real (and historically significant) person ?

The question tends to be answered either overconfidently and affirmatively – generally in the realms of popular, or would be popular, literature or very cautiously though with a bias towards the negative, in academic circles. Certainly a generalisation but one that serves to define the aim of this paper. That is to answer the question not as definitively as many works of popular literature claim to, but to make a judgement of the probabilities that is bolder and more ambitious than is usually attempted in the academic literature.

Suffice to mention here also the self-evident fact that the question will have fundamentally zero historical relevance if the answer is found to be in the negative. However there remains another closely linked (and arguably more interesting) question that will always have some kind of historical relevance, since the legend itself has some historical relevance: and that is what was the origin of that legend ? This is the second question this paper will aim to shed some significant light on, if not definitively answer.

Since the aim (however naïve) is to convince I will start by trying to establish some common ground by defining the problem and the difficult questions it raises rather than looking directly for the answers.

“King” Arthur is massive in the literary record and as an overwhelmingly dominant figure of legend but very weakly attested in the historical sources. True the period he is apparently identified with is one very poorly recorded per se but to come down to specifics the problem for Arthur's historicity has always been his absence from the one outstandingly important early account – that of Gildas (1), and secondarily (though admittedly related to this) that of Bede(2). The problem is not just that of failing to find any reference to this figure but of matching his overwhelming reputation in later times with his complete absence from the key early sources.

The earliest source for Arthur, the 'Historia Britonum' of circa 829 (3), is dated to a very long time - about 300 years - after he is supposed to have existed (I should perhaps qualify that by saying the earliest 'substantial' source but we will explore what exactly I mean by this later). Nevertheless one thing that this source does do is to establish a rather specific historical context for Arthur and this is something, that, broadly speaking, is consistently maintained in the tradition as we find it in the later sources. This could be taken as support for the historical reality of Arthur (4), of course. It is in any case a phenomenon that any explanation for the origin of his legend will need to explain.

Further investigation of our key early source, meanwhile, raises another difficult question that many have noted and that we cannot avoid. Gildas describes another figure who seems to play a very similar role to that which the legendary Arthur is supposed to have played but who is not Arthur. This historical figure, Ambrosius Aurelianus, appears to have played an outstanding role in rallying the Britons to stem the Saxon advance (5)which is very similar to that purported to have been played by Arthur. Indeed it is this role which essentially defines Arthur's claim to historicity. So the question which we cannot avoid is what exactly was the relationship between Arthur – especially if we consider him a historical figure - and Ambrosius Aurelianus ?

Now admittedly there might be some argument as to whether Ambrosius played a role that was as broadly significant for the history of the whole island, and the Britons as a whole, as that generally attributed to Arthur. It is certainly my interpretation of Gildas that he is relating some traditions widely accepted in his time as having that kind of significance but this might be disputed by some (6)who see Gildas as having only a rather restricted view of what happened in only one part of the island – and it would take a very long digression for me to substantiate my interpretation ( which many may share, anyway). Suffice to say here that Arthur, himself is defined as a figure, very much within the Gildasian tradition. His most renowned reputed victory, that of Badon Hill, is the one mentioned by Gildas. So Arthur, himself, does not look, at first sight, as though he represents a tradition with roots in important historical events that were outside the narrow purview of Gildas.

Badon is, of course, a victory associated with, if not explicitly said to have been won by, Ambrosius, in a source which, as we have noted, does not mention Arthur (7). Yet this battle represents the one most significant point of contact between between the legend of Arthur and reasonably certifiable historical reality.

This is one reason why I find myself very sympathetic to those who answer the question I have just raised by saying that Arthur actually was Ambrosius. There is a strong logic behind that position and it would very satisfactorily answer so many questions. The problem is of course that it also raises its own very difficult questions: how do we explain the two different names and further to that their clearly quite separate traditions as these are revealed in later sources. Solutions like saying one name was a 'nickname', or a 'title' have every appearance of being a very contrived device to get out of a historical difficulty (8).

But if they were not one and the same then proponents of the historicity of Arthur have to find room for two outstanding characters associated with the successful British stemming of the Saxon advance. This task is rendered all the the more difficult for the way that Arthur is defined as such a uniquely outstanding figure. At any rate the more one reduces the actual historical significance of Arthur then the harder it becomes to answer another question: that is how did he get to become such an overwhelmingly important figure in the later tradition ? (9) Or in other words my original “second question” - what is the origin of the legend ? - is relatively easy to answer if Arthur actually was a figure of outstanding historical significance but much harder if he wasn't.

One might briefly mention here that there is much that defines that huge renown, much in the legend of Arthur, that might take us in a direction other than that of a figure of historical reality. What I mean by that is his stereotypical (one could certainly argue) role as a figure of folklore and his close association with the Celtic, or anyway pre-Christian, mythology from which much of that folklore derives. Many might argue that this would be a more fruitful area to investigate in order to find out more about the origin of his legend (and we will return to this below) but there still needs explaining that rather specific historical context that I referred to above. And, of course, the reason why this figure, rather than any other, acquired such dominance in this field – if it was not some kind of distorted reflection of an outstanding historical role.

In any case, having mentioned one figure from the early sources with whom Arthur is commonly identified we can mention one other. The identification is – in my view at least – rather less convincing than the first one. Or at least it holds the potential answer to rather fewer questions. This is the identification (10) with Riothamus the “King of the Britons” described by early or even contemporary sources (11) as the leader of a British military expedition into Gaul in the late fifth century. The correlation here is with a part of the 'Arthurian tradition' that is not fundamental to his claim to historicity and which appears in works from a later period than the Historia Britonum when that tradition is likely to have evolved (even) further away from any underlying historical reality. I mean, of course, Arthur's expedition into Gaul against the Roman empire as it appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum (of the early 12th century) (12) and as perhaps mentioned a century or so earlier in the Life of St Goezniou (13). This identification supplies a potential explanation for one - more doubtful - part of the Arthurian tradition but not for its essential core. Nevertheless the question of the origin of this part of the tradition is still one that deserves an answer.

Arthur has been identified with all sorts of other figures, of course, but when we look at the myriad of such identifications in totality then it might tend only to reinforce the view of the fundamental insubstantialness of Arthur as a historical figure: it appears he has to be hooked onto someone else to be made 'real'.

This concludes the first part of my discussion and I am now going to move onto the second part which will attempt to answer questions rather than just ask them. I should say at the start that this section will be sharply focussed on, in fact almost completely limited to, our earliest (substantial) historical source, the Historia Britonum. So there will be no startling revelation about hitherto overlooked sources or anything of that kind. On the other hand it will not attempt, either, any very detailed analysis of the compilation of the Historia or any especially innovative interpretation of it. Nor will it be dependant on any such approach. It will be an argument from general observations designed to reach a conclusion about general probabilities. However I would like to preface this section by issuing a reminder about how we should always give proportionately much greater weight to our earlier sources and to the fact that so much of the later sources can be seen to be derivative of, or related to, the description of Arthur as it appears in the Historia.

Arthur is of course mentioned in two separate sections of the Historia but if we had only the second – the Mirabilia (14) – then this source would have very little relevance to Arthur as a potentially historical character. So we will start by concentrating on the more obviously relevant section, the one that contains the list of Arthur's battles (15). This is of course the passage that gives Arthur that rather specific historical context, we have noted above. The way in which the Historia gives Arthur a very specific historical role, winning a series of battles against the Anglo Saxons, is particularly striking given the contrast it presents to the decidedly non-historical fairy-tale role that Ambrosius (or 'Embreis/Emrys') is given in this work (16). Given the certainly historical nature of the latter this does appear as something of an intriguing paradox.

In any case I want to focus on two key elements of the way this apparently historical Arthur is represented.

First is the much remarked upon fact that he is not here “king” Arthur – he is quite specifically identified as something else, as fighting “together with the kings of the British” but being himself a “dux bellorum”, “leader of battles”. His association with “bellorum” is further amplified by the following narrative where it is not only his military competence but his personal prowess as a warrior that is especially emphasised :
“nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's and no one laid them low save he alone”. (17)
This characterisation is further reinforced in what looks like a separate strand of tradition, in the Mirabilia, where he is described as “Arthuri militis” “of Arthur, the soldier”(18). We are clearly presented with someone who is characterised as a military paragon, not just in terms of his genius as a general – a “leader of battles” who was “victorious in all his campaigns” - but as a warrior defined by his personal valour, whose feats of arms are superhuman.

Straight away we need to ask ourselves what kind of figure this kind of characterisation is most likely to be appropriate to. I think there are rather few records of anyone winning a significant victory in the British Dark Ages who was not in fact a 'king'. I suppose that in a long established system like the near contemporary Roman empire you could have an Aetius, a Stilicho or a Ricimer, but there could have been no such long established system in sub-Roman Britain and it requires a rather elaborate hypothesis to conjecture any such system, there. In any case would any Aetius or Ricimer - or any historically, and/or militarily, significant figure, in fact - be defined primarily by their personal prowess as a warrior? No doubt its possible but I would say that the category of figures most likely to be defined primarily by their personal feats of superhuman valour are the mythical and divine, a war god or a divine hero, such as a Hercules or a Cuchulain. In any case the way that Ambrosius is represented presents an interesting contrast in this respect. Whilst he is depicted as an apparently rather unhistorical fairy tale figure - albeit heavy with symbolic significance - he is characterised as a 'wleddig' (“Guletic” ) - an “overlord” (19). This is an entirely credible designation for a successful war leader and in terms specifically of Gildas's description of the role he played, precisely the kind of title we might have expected him to have held.

But I will move on now to the second key element in the way that Arthur is represented. This is his close association with religion, specifically of course, Christianity.
“Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shoulders and the heathen were put to flight that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of our lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother.”(20)
Or in the variant of this tradition that appears in the Annales Cambriae:
“Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders (?shield?) and the Britons were victorious”(21).
Now, whereas the 'warrior' aspect of Arthur is generally taken to represent the 'primitive tradition' from which the development of 'king' Arthur was obviously a later departure, the religious aspect of the figure as he appears in the Historia and Annales is less often seen in this way but rather more frequently as some manipulation of, or addition to, the 'primitive tradition' that was made by the author of the Historia or dates from not long before him. Now whilst on the one hand it is possible to see reasons pertinent to the historical conditions of circa 800 why a Welshman, especially a Venedotian cleric, might want to give such a religious slant to this History, it is also very easy to see how the 5th century struggle of the Britons against the Saxons might have been seen very much in religious terms by the people who actually fought them at the time. The Britons must have strongly self-identified at the time as 'Roman' and Christian against the pagan and barbarian Saxons. It surely was a context of bitter ethnic and religious division. Just read the ferocious characterisation of the heathen Saxons by Gildas!

It is also quite possible that any religious references made in an earlier tradition might have been remodelled to suit the religious taste and fashions of the 8th or 9th century Welsh ecclesiastics who put this tradition into writing (hence perhaps the specific reference to the cult of the Virgin, for instance ). The existence of the parallel notice in the Annales shows that this was a tradition that could vary, or mutate, in its details. We can at least ask the question why it is that no other heroic figure of Welsh tradition (that I can think of) is laden with this weight of religious reference. Perhaps that was because no other figure so completely represented the Britons as a people, or a whole era of their history, but at this point the argument begins to become circular - how did Arthur reach that level of significance in the first place? It is in any case a simple fact that the two most salient features of the way Arthur is represented in the Historia are his personal, superhuman prowess as a warrior and his depiction in overtly religious terms as a champion of Christianity.

Now if you put those two elements together what does it give you ? Or more to the point what kind of figure is most likely to have been characterised by emphasising these two things? A figure with an especially close association with religion is likely to be a 'cult figure' – divine, semi-divine or in a Christian context a 'saint' or 'martyr' – and it is precisely this kind of figure, who – if associated with warfare as many were (think 'war god' or 'military saint') – is most likely to have been characterised, directly in terms of their personal superhuman valour.

What is particularly striking in my view is the personal role that Arthur is said to have played actually on the battlefield as a religious champion of superhuman power and valour. It is this that brings to mind some parallels that I think are quite telling. One can think of many examples of the personal intervention of divine or semi-divine figures, in a reputedly decisive way, actually on the battlefield. There are Homer's gods personally entering the fray at Troy for instance, or the reported appearance of Theseus at Marathon (22). More tellingly, in a Christian context, there is the miraculous appearance of Saints George, Demetrius and Mercurius at Antioch, leading the crusaders to victory (23). Most tellingly of all there is the role that St James, “Matomoros”, “the killer of the moors” played at the legendary battle of Clavijo. and more generally in the wars of the beleaguered Spanish Christians against the Muslim invaders of Spain (24). He “was often seen fighting in battle by the side of the Christian rulers against the enemies of the faith” and was of course the “hope and mainstay of the Christian people” (of Spain) “in times of stress and threatening ruin” (25). The point is that not only can we see here a figure parallel to Arthur in the way that (notwithstanding he was supposed to be one of the apostles) he was defined very much by his personal - 'moor-killing' - warrior prowess, which was reputedly decisive on the battlefield but we can also see how such a figure could come to play a crucial role and gain widespread renown in a context very parallel to that of the beleaguered Britons in their struggle against the invading pagan Saxons. This is precisely the kind of thing we have been looking for to explain the huge reputation of Arthur as we find it in the later tradition.

We know very little about the actual origin of the cult of St James at Compostella but the one thing that we can be reasonably certain about is that it had precious little to do with the apostle, himself. This was a cult whose rise to local dominance had much to do with the role it played in the struggle of the Christian Spaniards against the encroaching Moors, giving them a champion who expressed their self identity and who inspired them on the battlefield. Now we can see how for the Christians of the Asturian kingdom, out on a limb in Muslim Spain, it was very useful to have a cult figure who firmly established their link with the mainstream Christianity of the rest of Europe, aligning them with the Christian powers against both the Muslim Moors themselves and also perhaps those Christian Mozarabs who could be suspected of being influenced by Islam, or otherwise showing too close a relationship to its protagonists. It might be that a martial cult figure who was also an 'apostle' suited their needs very well.

Clearly in the case of Arthur, if he does indeed have a parallel origin as any kind of cult or semi-divine figure then he is no longer defined that way in the surviving sources. He will have had to have undergone some process of 'euhemerisation'. The euhemerisation of pagan deities into apparently historical personages is in fact very typical of early medieval 'pseudo-history', especially in an Irish context (26). However it would be true to say that the idea of the Britons uniting around a pagan cult figure in their struggles against the Saxons of the fifth century is pretty much unthinkable. Any cult figure serving that purpose would have to have been a Christian saint or martyr, or at least to have been perceived that way. However a figure 'perceived' this way might still have had an actual origin in pagan belief. Such might even have been the case with the cult figure of Compostella – at any rate this cult figure surely had some rather dubious origin that was other than the one he was later reputed to have had.

Its important to be aware that the creation of 'bogus' saints or martyrs was more or less endemic in the late Roman Empire (27) and it can at least be argued that this very often involved the 'christianisation' of pagan cult figures (28) – in other words saints or martyrs who were actually in origin pagan cult figures. In a post-Roman insular context it is difficult not to to see a manifestation of the pagan goddess Brigantia in St Bridget, for example, and one need only look at the work of Padraig O'Riain (29) to find many more parallel examples. The availability of genuine saints and martyrs would always have been much less in the Western empire (or ex-empire) where Christianity only spread much later (30) and so the need to rather artificially create them, arguably all the greater. All the more so again, one might further argue in the very far west of Britain (31).

It would certainly be very easy to argue that any cult figure from the sub Roman period in Britain might find their origin in some kind of syncretic context. Christianity had been only relatively recently introduced - basically one would suspect from 'the top down', native paganism can be demonstrated by archaeology to have been very strong right up into the latest period of the Roman occupation (32) and the departure of the Roman administration would have left the erstwhile provincials in desperate need of something to rally around against the multiple foes that assailed them. There would have been a need to assert their civilised, Roman Christian identity against the barbarian pagan foe whilst at the same time uniting a society, and mobilising a populace - as much as was possible – that was still, if not 'formally' pagan, very pagan nevertheless in its way of thinking and perhaps in terms of its fundamental loyalties. It is not too hard to imagine that in that kind of context a cult figure that could be understood in different ways by different sections of society, might have had certain advantages. An overtly Christian figure with actual pagan roots might have been capable of being understood in such a dual way and of offering some kind of unifying focus for a society that was both undergoing a religious revolution and fighting for its survival.

What we actually know about the cult figures of post Roman Britain is the names of three of them (the reputed martyr Alban from Verulamium, and the pair of reputed martyrs Aaron and Iulius from 'Urbs Legionis') and the fact that, according to Gildas there were many more (33). There is plenty of space here for any mooted “Saint (or Martyr) Artorius”, although we should note here that what would be important for us would be simply that the Arthur of later tradition had his roots, somehow or other, in such a sub-Roman cult figure. This does not require - although for the purposes of argument at this stage need not exclude the possibility - that he should bear precisely the same name. Such a figure, though, would need to have been sufficiently 'syncretic', or to have retained sufficient of a pagan 'aura' as to require a kind of 'euhemerisation' at some stage along the line of transmission that led up to the Historia. Or that he should have lost sufficient of his original cultic significance so as to make it likely that – in the course perhaps of the oral transmission of his legend – it would simply have been forgotten, and for the cult figure to have gradually assumed the status of an actual human hero, in the course of the many re-tellings of the story. Not too hard to imagine how the cult-figure who was said to have been responsible for the victory, or to have appeared on the battlefield to 'lead the charge', could over the course of many poetic re-tellings, say, have become perceived as an actual heroic person.

I think we have a workable theory here which will actually suit the conditions of fifth century Britain rather well. I would like to return again to the precise wording of the Historia. It is the precise words “de uno impetu Arthur; et nemo prostravit eos nisi ipse solus” “from a single charge of Arthur's and no-one laid them low save he alone” (34)which are very suggestive to me of the kind of paean that might be addressed to a martial cult figure. Of course I have no way of verifying the authenticity of this precise wording to any anterior tradition but I think, with this caveat of uncertainty, this is still an observation worth making. And we should also note the reference to the carrying of a religious symbol - be it the image of the Virgin or the Cross of our Lord – into the battle either on Arthur's shoulders' or on his shield (35). One can imagine how this – even if modified in the form we have it – might originate in a reminiscence of how the British warriors were actually inspired on the battlefield by some symbol of the cult figure. The actual bearing of some symbol of this figure into the battle, be it painted on a shield, or on a standard held aloft that led the charge, say, might then have helped to inspire the formation of the legend, featuring perhaps in the poetic accounts of the battles from which the legend evolved - and surviving, ultimately, in the mutated form we find them here. The use of such symbols of cultic significance in battle was quite typical, of course: one can think of the golden standards of the Celtic equivalent to Athena that were carried by the Cisalpine Gauls shortly after the battle of Telamon, according to Polybius (36) or the standard of St David as mentioned in 'Armes Prydein' (37).

I think we have here the outlines of a theory which will hold water but most important, I think that this theory answers the questions that I started off by asking. It explains very simply how Arthur's role, as a dominant cult-figure associated with the British resistance to the Saxons, could have paralleled that of Ambrosius, who actually led it – how both, indeed, might have been 'present' at the same battle of Badon and both be seen as having (in originally rather different ways) won it. And such a cult figure might easily have been notionally involved with all the military exploits of the Britons of that period including the expedition of Riothamus to Gaul. It answers these questions without the need for any awkward assumptions about figures bearing different names in different contexts or for the unlikely overlooking of some very prominent figure by the authors of our early sources. At the same time I think it does offer some kind of credible explanation for the way that Arthur bulks so large in the later tradition. It explains, too, the consistency of the historical context in which Arthur is placed - because it assumes an actual 5th century cult figure associated with the wars of that time, at the root of the legend that surfaces in the Historia.

At this point we can finally widen our perspective to include other 'sources' and to explain the qualification I put, at the beginning of this paper, to the labelling of the Historia as our 'earliest source'. The references to a famous 'Arthur' - significantly as a standard of comparison for military valour - in the early poetry such as the Gododdin (38) (and also very likely in the Marwydan Cynddylan (39)), though insecurely dated, may well be from as early as around 600. The appearance of some historical figures named Arthur (40) also seem likely to point to the existence of Arthur as a heroic figure of legend by around the late sixth century. Whilst its just possible that a martial 'saint', say, might have inspired the naming of these individuals and been used as a standard of valour in the Gododdin its likely that the transformation from cult figure to heroic individual had occurred by this time. I think that it is a priori likely that the period of greatest mutation in the transmission of the legend, the most formative period for its creation, would be precisely that early 'watershed' period, which marked the boundary between the sub-Roman world of Gildas, still associated with a classical or Late Antique mindset and education and the early medieval world, the much more narrowly religious and tribal world, that succeeded it (41). This was also the period of greatest change in the Welsh language. It was the period that formed a kind of horizon in the collective folk memory of succeeding generations. It would have been the period in which the 'euhemerised' hero of poetry and story tale would have evolved, in the context of the dissolution of the social order in which his antecedent cult figure had played such an important role.

The other category of sources to briefly notice is the vernacular poetry mentioning Arthur, especially that which has the flavour of very ancient tradition. Suffice to say that much of it it reinforces the characterisation of Arthur as above all a warrior, of outstanding, if not superhuman, valour (42).

Finally we can return to a feature of the Arthurian legend that I briefly alluded to above, which I think this is something else our interpretation can help explain, if we bear in mind that our hypothesised 5th century cult figure represents the Christianisation of an ultimately pagan figure, not, say, a genuine martyr from the Roman era called 'Artorius'. This is the very close association of Arthur in so many sources with Celtic religious myth or the folklore that so often derives from it (43). Associated with this is the way the legend so easily latches onto local contexts,(44) even indeed as far away as Sicily, (45) and as it were reproduces itself at this local level. This is all much easier to understand if Arthur represents a cult figure with roots, ultimately, in pre-Christian pagan religion, along the lines we are proposing. Of course any figure can be 'mythologised' and acquire these associations (46) but we have an especially good reason why that should be true of our figure. The nature of pagan Celtic, or more broadly pre-Christian, religious lore and the 'folklore' that evolved from it is that it repeated itself over and over at a local level so that often one figure after another shared very similar attributes. If one of these figures, through whatever process of elevation to transient figurehead status should become dominant and especially well known then it was always very easy for the other 'lesser' figures, in their various local contexts, to become identified with him - and thereby share in his legendary renown. Arthur was one such dominant figure - who was both unique in his pseudo-historical role and very much a stereotype in other contexts of myth and folklore.

It is true that the most outstanding question begged by the theory outlined here, is that of the origin of the name 'Arthur' itself. Whilst Welsh 'Arthur' can be derived, in a regular way from the Roman name 'Artorius' which might quite easily have been appropriate to some genuine individual from sub-Roman Britain, (47) or, come to that, to a genuine saintly individual or martyr from the Roman era, there is nothing that very obviously connects it with anything we know about pre-Christian cults or religion. We do not have a name like those of St Bridget or St Denis (Dionysius) that are easily interprable as having been originally appropriate to a pagan cult figure. One can say in this respect that there is a limit to what we know about pre-Christian religion in Britain and that this was a period of great upheaval, in which something of a religious revolution must have taken place and so it might well have been possible for some of the more submerged religious currents of the time to have been, as it were, thrown to the surface. At the same time our cult figure will need to have had the appearance of a Christian one so it might have needed to have a name that did not too conspicuously betray its pagan origin.

The three cult figures recorded from sub Roman Britain do not have names with any obvious associations with pagan religion of course, but then they are conventionally regarded as bona fide Christian martyrs. It is in fact my view that nevertheless these do represent the Christianisation of cults with an ultimately pagan origin, something by no means unusual, I believe, for the time. I have in fact attempted to delve further into the maze of interrelationships between pagan and pseudo-christian cults and cult figures and I think that here we can find further circumstantial evidence to support the theory put forward about Arthur here, and indeed to further refine it. But this is a very long and complex analysis which I will not attempt here.

Rather I would like to leave the argument, here, where it is - which leaves it as simply one for the origin of the Arthur of legend in a 5th century syncretic cult figure, associated with the wars of that time. This argument can then be judged on that basis, for what it is. It is, of course, a circumstantial argument but I think it best answers the key questions that need answering: reconciling Arthur's very specific historical context, his pretty firm attachment to certain historical events and a certain historical period, with everything about him that points to a rather characteristic figure of 'folklore' and the pre-christian mythology from which that largely derives. It provides an explanation for his supremacy in the tradition that is indeed associated with a unique historical role, but not that of any actual human individual. In addition to that it is, in my view, quite simply, what the account in the Historia most obviously 'looks like'. This latter is perhaps necessarily a matter of subjective judgement to some degree and of course relies on an assumption I cannot prove that behind the account of Arthur's battles in the Historia there do lie traditions (beyond simply the bare reference to Badon) with their ultimate roots in the sub Roman period of British history.

Nevertheless as a theory that best answers the questions that most need asking I think it is the one most likely to be broadly correct. I don't think that we will discover any more startling new evidence about Arthur, and I don't think that any more of the painstaking refinement of what we can figure out about the sources or any new archaeological discoveries will help very much. But what I do think is that we already have, particularly in the Historia, quite enough to get a very shrewd idea of what kind of origin the legend of Arthur is likely to have had and to answer the question “was he a real person?” - at least in terms of a reasonable balance of the probabilities – in the negative.


1) Gildas's De Excidio Britonum is conventionally dated to around 540 AD. See text and translation in Winterbottom. It is outstandingly important as a very rare source for the 5th century, written within living memory of that century, and the only such one to attempt anything approaching a history of Britain in that period.

2) Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, trans. in Leo Shirley-Price “A History of the English Church and People”. Dated to 731 AD. Chapter 16 summarises Gildas on the role of Ambrosius.

3) The Historia Britonum dated to around 829. Texts and trans. in Morris, Dumville 1985 and Lot. Discussion around its historical value in Dumville 1977 and 1986.

4) It was enough to convince William of Malmesbury in his De Gestis Regum Anglorum 8, (in Stubbs 1887: I-II) of 1125, despite his keen awareness of the 'fabulous' elements of the legend, in his day “This is that Arthur, of whom the Bretons fondly fable, even to the present day; a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but in authentic history. He, indeed, for a long time upheld the sinking state, and roused the broken spirit of his countrymen to war”.

5) Gildas, De Excidio 25. Having described a revolt of Saxon mercenaries against the “proud tyrant” of the Britons and the devastating impact this has right across Britain, Gildas goes on to say
“After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions, as eagerly as bees to the beehive when a storm threatens, and begged whole-heartedly, “Burdening heaven with unnumbered prayers”, that they should not be altogether destroyed. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm: certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.
    From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least.”

6) E.g. E.A. Thompson 1979-80 followed in part by Dumville 1984. but cf. Sims-Williams 1983b, p.14.

7) Padel (pp. 16-18) has demonstrated that the paragraph division that might appear to somewhat distance Ambrosius from the battle (and which I have reproduced in my note 5) almost certainly did not appear in the original. Jackson (1959:3) argued “What English bishop, castigating the vices of his compatriots about 1860, would be so clumsy as to allude to “the battle of Waterloo, which was won by the Duke of Wellington?”” but this somewhat ignores the fact that Gildas had been in the course of giving a potted history of 5th century Britain. For Jackson it was Badon that accounted for Arthur's subsequent fame : “this decisive victory was credited to Arthur...and would account well for his fame as the supreme conqueror of the English”.

8) Compare Chambers 169

9) Compare Rhys 1891: 8, who fully grasped the problem, but whose solution does not convince.

10) So for instance Geoffrey Ashe, see Ashe 1981.

11) Sidonius Apollinaris, Ep.III.9; Jordanes, Getica 45; cf. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II, 18-19, trans. in Thorpe 1974.

12) Historia Regum IX.11 – X.12. Trans. in Thorpe 1966.

13) Life of St Goezniou, possibly from 1019, excerpted in Coe, 36-37. For early references to Arthur in Breton tradition, Le Duc and Fleuriot.

14) The Mirabilia, Historia Britonum 73 :
“There is another wonder in the country called Builth. There is a heap of stones there, and one of the stones placed on top of the pile has the foot-print of a dog on it. When he hunted Twrch Trwyth Cafal, the warrior Arthur's (“Arthuri militis”) hound, impressed his footprint on the stone, and Arthur later brought together the pile of stones, under the stone in which was his dog's footprint, and it is called Carn Cafal. Men coma and take the stone in their hands for the space of a day and and night, and on the morrow it is found upon the pile.
 :  : There is another wonder in the country called Erging. There is a tomb by a spring, called Llygad Amr, the name of the man who is buried in the tomb was Amr. He was the son of the warrior Arthur (“Arthur militis”), and he killed him there and buried him. Men come to measure the tomb, and it is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever measure you measure it on one occasion, you never find it again of the same measure, and I have tried it myself.”

15) Historia Britonum 56 from Morris
“Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle (“dux bellorum”).
The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Lindsey.. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is the Battle of Celyddon coed. The eighth battle was in Guinnion Fort and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting Virgin, on his shoulders (?shield?) and the heathen were put to flight that day, and there was a great slaughter upon them, through the power of our lord Jesus Christ and the power of the holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Trwfrywd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns”
This has been thought to be based on a written vernacular source (see below, note 35), possibly ultimately on a 'battle-listing' poem, from an oral tradition. See Chadwicks I, pp. 154-5; Jackson 1959: p.7; Dumville 1977: p. 188; Sims-Williams 1984: pp. 171-2. General discussion about its historical value in Dumville 1977 and 1986. It is arguable, but far from provable, that an independent, roughly parallel tradition, about Arthur's historical role existed in Brittany: De la Borderie; Le Duc; Fleuriot 1985: pp. 245-6, 277.

16) Historia Britonum, chapters 40-42.

17) Above, notes 15, 3.

18) Above, notes 14, 3.

19) Historia Britonum, chapter 42.
“Et rex ad adolescentem dixit; “Quo nomine vocaris?” Ille respondit; “Ambrosius vocor” id est Embreis Guletic ipse videbatur”
The king asked the lad “What is your name?” he replied “I am called Ambrosius” that is, he was shown to be Emrys the Overlord.”

20) Above notes 15, 3.

21) The Annales Cambriae is dated to around 950: text and trans. in Morris; text in Williams. The entry is for 516
“Bellum Badonis, in quo Arthur portavit crucem Domini nostri Jhesu Christi tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in humeros suos et Brittones victores fuerunt”
“The Battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victorious”
The two entries that mention Arthur (the other one, under 537 refers to Arthur's famous last battle “The Battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell”) probably represent late interpolations into annals of ultimately Irish origin ( Hughes: 253-8; Dumville 1977b:176) from a source that was not itself annalistic but – in the case of the Badon entry at least – very likely closely related to the source behind chapter 56 of the Historia Britonum, if not directly derivative from that. See Charles-Edwards 25-8 and Jackson 1959:5.

22) Plutarch, Theseus 35.

23) Albert of Aix in Historia Hierosolymitanae expeditionis, with close variants in Peter Tudebodes's Historia de Hierosolymitano itinere and Robert of Rheims' Historia Hierosolymitana.

24) See Kendrick pp.13-20.

25) See O'Callaghan pp. 32, 105.

26) Eg the “Tuatha de Danaan”

27) See Jones A.H.M: p.958, Delehaye: p. 70. 'Bogus' martyrs were created in various ways: tombs were wrongly ascribed to martyrs (Delehaye pp. 88-9), locally notorious figures were described as such ( Vita Martini II ) and the 'localisation' of translated relics led to 'duplications' (Van Dam; pp. 80-1, 87).

28) Contrast Jones p. 961 with Saintyves' extensive investigations. Wood (1994: 74) describes one example of where it seems clearly to have happened.

29) See eg., Padraig O'Riain, in O'Riain 1983: "I take the general view that most of the Irish (and indeed Welsh) saints had no existence as historical persons. They represent either surrogate deities or localised manifestations (in other words, doublets) of originally single and sometimes genuine cults ....". For examples of a detailed exposition of this kind of analysis: O'Riain 1977a and 1977b.

30) Griffe (I, 130-3) has pointed out the rather small number of genuine martyrs in Gaul

31) Thomas (1981 p.44) suggests that Christianity was weak in Britain compared to the rest of the empire, while Gildas nevertheless suggests there were a large number of saints and martyrs regarded as having existed during the Roman period (below, note 32).

32) See eg. Salway p.734, Higham p.65 and Watts. Watts, however, overstates the case both for what a study based mainly on archaeological evidence can tell you and for a so called 5th century 'fall' of Christianity. All the literary sources – Constantius, Patrick and Gildas – confirm that Christianity remained, or became, the dominant religion of the elite, at least, in those areas not controlled by the Anglo-Saxons, whatever the mindset and indeed religious habits and practices of the 'masses'. Of course there is strong evidence that in the 5th century Christianity was actually spreading from the old Roman province of Britain into Scotland (Ninian: Bede, note 2 HE III,4) and Ireland (Palladius, Patrick, the use of 'British' Latin etc..), even if it may have withered in areas controlled by the pagan Anglo-Saxons (though not completely in eg. Kent – see eg. Brookes 1984).

33) De Excidio 10.
“As a free gift to us, in the time (as I conjecture) of this same persecution, he acted to save Britain being plunged deep in the thick darkness of black night: for he lit for us the brilliant lamps of holy martyrs. Their graves and the places where they suffered would now have the greatest effect in instilling the blaze of divine charity in the minds of beholders, were it not that our citizens, thanks to our sins, have been deprived of many of them by the unhappy partition with the barbarians. I refer to St Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and the others of both sexes who, in different places, displayed the highest spirit in the battle line of Christ.”

34) Above, notes 15, 3.

35) It is usually assumed that the “humeros” (“shoulders”) in the Historia and Annales is by misinterpretation of Old Welsh 'scuit', “shield”, for “scuid”, “shoulders”. See eg Bromwich 1975/6: 170; Jackson 1959: 6-7. This implies that a written vernacular source lies behind the Latin account in the Historia (Dumville 1986, p.13 note 42).

36) Polybius, II, 32.

37) Armes Prydein l. 129 (p.10-11 in Williams 1972)
“A lluman glan Dewi a drychafant” “they will raise on high the holy standard of Dewi”

38) Arthur in Y Gododdin: see Koch 1997: pp. 22-3, 147-8; Jackson p. 112; Jarman pp. 64-5; excerpted in Coe pp. 152-4; Padel (pp. 13-14.) points out this reference does not prove Arthur was regarded as historical at the time. It is possible the passage has been included in the poem later (a complicated discussion) but could date back to the earliest stage in the genesis of the poem, usually thought to be around 600 AD. Arthur is used as a standard of comparison for military valour in the description of the warrior 'Gwawrddur.' Translation from Jackson: “He stabbed over three hundred of the finest, he slew both the centre and the wings, he behaved worthily in the forefront of the most generous army; he gave out presents from his herd of horses in the winter. He glutted (?) black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur... …...In the van, Gwawrddur was a palisade of Alder(?).”

39) Conceivably dating as far back as the 7th century, the Marwnad Cynddylan seems to describe Cynddylan and his brothers as “canawon Artur Fras, dinas dengwyn”, “whelps of stout Arthur, a strong fortress”. See Bromwich et al 1991: Introduction, p. 5 and note 10 on p.13; text of poem in Williams 1931-3: pp 136, 140; trans. in Clancy.

40) See Chadwicks: 161; Bromwich 1975/6: 178; 1978: 274 and Padel: 24.

41) Compare Dumville 1986: 9-11 “..the middle of the sixth century forms the major watershed of our post-Roman history....”

42)) Eg Ymddiddan Arthur ar Eryr, The Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle (in Haycock 1994: 297-312 and part trans. in Coe 1995: 103-7. ), perhaps from the 12th century, which has lines like
“Arthur glydyfawc aruthyr / ny seif dy alon rac dy ruthr “
“Arthur of the terrible sword / your enemies stand not before your rush”

43) Arthur is associated with a journey to the otherworld (eg in the poem Pryddeu Annwyn, Haycock 1983/4, the Welsh Triads, Bromwich 1978, p.140 and Culhwch and Olwen, in the Mabinogion, Jones G & T pp. 105, 108) that has close analogues in broader Celtic tradition (as in eg Branwen, Daughter of Llyr in the Mabinogion, the Historia Britonum 13 and see Sims Williams 1991) and more distant ones in, for instance, Greek and Middle Eastern tradition ( see eg Frazer and Eliade) with its ultimate roots in the characteristic cult beliefs of the early agriculturalists of the Neolithic, associated with the cyclical re-birth of vegetation. The otherworld sometimes takes the form of an island (see, eg Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, and the Vita Gildae of Caradoc of Llancarfan, ed. & trans. in Williams), characteristic for the Celts (see eg in an Irish context, The Voyage of Bran, son of Febal or in an ancient and continental context Pomponius Mela's De Situ Orbis III) and is sometimes where Arthur is 'waiting to return (so he was reported in Herman's De Miraculi Sactae Mariae Laudensis, c.16, see Tatlock 1933a and the Prophetia Anglicana Merlini Ambrosii Britanni ed 1603, lib 1, p.17 and see Loomis 1959a), a legend that almost certainly owes something, ultimately, to the 're-birth' of vegetation, as well as to political wishful thinking.

44) The localised legends about Arthur that link him to the toponymy go back to our earliest sources – see the Historia Britonum 73 (note 14), Liber Floridus in J-P Migne, Patrologia Latina, t, 163, 1003-32 at 1012; Herman, De Miraculis (note 43), 16-17. Padel has demonstrated the “vitality and consistency” of these legends over a very long time – see Padel: 19, 2-6, 25-30. While in some localised contexts Arthur looks like a recent arrival, in others he has been displaced: Rhys 1901; 493. Arthur's name is typically found associated with prehistoric megaliths, quoits and cromlechs as well as natural rocks, boulders or craggy outcrops (Padel 19, 26-7; Snell, Ashe 1980 and Historia Britonum 73 – see note 14) and appears in, for instance, the hills and mountains : Benn Arthur (Argyll), Bann Arthur (Brecon), Pen Arthur (Carmarthen), Moel Arthur (Denbighshire) - and islands Great and Little Arthur (in the Scillies). Typically he encourages an anthropomorphic interpretation of the topography, as with “Arthur's Chair” (= Bann Arthur in Geraldus) or “Arthur's Seat” (in Edinburgh, Dumbarton, Angus, Aberdden, Banff, Dumfriesshire and Liddlesdale, in Cumberland. See Watson 1926 208-9, Snell: 38, 138, 161, 203, 220; Ashe 1980). The characteristic legend about he and his warriors sleeping inside a mountain is found in versions localised at eg Marchlyn Mawr and Snowdon (mount) in Snowdonia; Craig y Dinas in Glamorgan, Ogo'r Dinas in Carmarthen, Alderley Edge in Cheshire, Sewingshields in Northumberland, the Eildon hills in Melrose, Richmond Castle and South Cadbury. See Rhys 1901: 336-7, 458-97; Snell: 50-4, 208-9, 214-7. This type of legend can be raced back to Plutarch, De Defectu Oraculorum 18.

45) Associated with Mount Etna: Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperiale of c.1211 (ed. F. Liebricht, Hanover 1856). Compare Floriant et Florete (ed. H.F. Williams, London 1947) 566-9, 8200-250; Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus Miraculorum, (ed. J.Strange, 1851, xii,12); the Otranto mosaic of 1165 (Loomis 1959b: 61) depicts 'Arturus Rex' mounted on a goat, which is how Walter Map (c.1190) describes the king of a subterranean realm. Other early references to 'Arthur underground' are in Etienne de Rouen's Draco Normannicus (of c.1169), the 13th century Wartburgkrieg, and a Dispute between a Christian and a Jew of c. 1375.

46) St Patrick is an obvious example of the 'mythologisation' of a historical person – so also Ambrosius, as we find him in the Historia.

47) “The name” in the words of Rachel Bromwich (1978 p.284 following Zimmer 818, note 1) “is thus to be classed with the group of names of Latin derivation borne by leading Britons in the sub-Roman period (exx. Patricius, Ambrosius Aurelianus, etc)”. Compare the Irish 'Finn', an almost certainly non-historical figure with whom Van Hamel, Padel (pp. 22-3) and others compare Arthur and of whom Van Hamel (p.235) notes “from such a very plain and natural name as Finn .... nothing can be inferred”.


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